I grew up off the grid.
Dad had inherited a parcel of land from his dad, my grandfather, with a modular home on it. We had a well and solar panels, a gas generator and a wood-burning stove for heat. Our squat little house, cozy in its way, was off one of the forest roads that didn’t have a name, just a series of numbers and letters.
Dad did something there for work that I didn’t understand, instruments sitting in the detached shop, taking measurements and scowling at screens over a cup of coffee. He watched over the woods, he said, and so I assumed it had something to do with the forest service, same as Mom. Mom worked at the ranger station in town, and she was the one who drove me to school every day, bouncing down the dirt road through the cool green forest, eleven miles of ruts and potholes surrounded by wildflowers and moss, past the mailbox that we only checked once a week, over the river with its one-lane bridge and onto the highway, where we'd take another twenty minutes to get anywhere worth going.
"Have a good day," she always said, dropping me in the school parking lot and leaning out of the Jeep window to give me a kiss.
I never thought our life was weird. It never occurred to me to be embarrassed, even as the other kids eyed the white Jeep with red mud spattered all up the doors, Mom with a bandanna over her hair to keep it in place before she went into work herself, fixing her lipstick in the mirror, uncovering her hair and taking off her long coat before clocking in at the ranger station, where she sold fishing and hunting permits, labeled maps with where the trailheads were, and warned tourists off of foraging for mushrooms. Mom was Mom, and Dad was Dad. They loved each other, and I knew they loved me, too, and nothing else much mattered. Mom took me to school, and Dad told me bedtime stories about magic in the woods, and the two of them both cooked dinner, rotating on who made what. Mom took me hiking, and Dad taught me how to fish, how to identify which berries and mushrooms were edible. I was happy, and I didn’t question anything.
In seventh grade, Amy Harris and her girl gang tried to bully me. At least, I think that's what they tried to do. Our school was small enough and everyone was weird enough that there wasn't much in the way of cliques, not in the traditional sense.
Amy's dad came from money, though -- he'd inherited the local saw mill -- and while he sent Amy to public elementary school, it was well-known that she'd be leaving for prep school on the opposite coast as soon we all graduated grade 8. No daughter of his would attend the county high school, with its leaking roof and ancient world maps (still labeled, inexplicably, with the Ottoman Empire, as though the kids of the lumberjacks and fishermen who made up the graduating class didn't need to know about anything beyond our corner of the world, the saw mill and the woods and nothing else).
There were no cliques (besides Amy's little knot of followers), but I didn't exactly have friends, either. I had acquaintances, who I hung out with at school, more because of opportunity than anything in common. We played soccer sometimes at recess, or what we thought was soccer, aimlessly kicking a ball around a field. I didn't get invited to sleepovers, though, and when birthdays rolled around, I was never invited to any parties.
This was, as Clarissa and the other kids I hung out with, Rachel and Andy and Danny, explained, less to do with me and more to do with the fact that no one wanted to put my mom out, driving me into town.
"Everyone knows you live too far away to come," she said primly. "So."
I nodded and accepted this. I lived too far away, and there was no point in inviting me, not when Mom wouldn't want to make the drive out, thirty miles one way for a couple hours at a birthday party.
Amy must have mistaken this passive acceptance of what I could not change for weakness. She confronted me at recess one day and told me, her voice too sweet, that it was "okay" that my dad had left us.
"Left us?" I didn't bother trying to hide my confusion.
"You know, left your mom and you and ran off to the city to start a normal family."
I blinked at her. "My dad still lives at home."
"Then why don't we ever see him?"
I wondered how to explain this. "He doesn't like driving the back roads unless he has to."
She looked at me, and said, false pity clear in her voice: "Oh, okay."
Behind her, the little group of girls who lived in town and whose fathers didn't work for Amy's snickered.
"You can believe me or not," I said, shrugging. "It's the truth."
"We totally believe you," Amy asid, in that too-sweet voice. "Totally."
I asked Dad why he didn't come into town, after that. I'd asked him once or twice before, when I was younger, and Mom would sometimes take me with her on the quarterly trips to stock up, taking me with her to the big-box store in the nearest city, driving the Jeep down to the ferry and hopping on.
"Why don't you ever come with us?"
He was sitting in the living room then, a heavy book in his lap and a mug of coffee on the end table beside him.
He marked his place with a scrap of paper, shut the book. "Should I?"
"People talk," I said carefully, after a second. "About how you never come. They might not, if..."
"Do you care what people say?"
I flushed red. "Well, no, but -- "
"There you are, then." He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. "Unless there's something else?"
"What's the real reason, Dad?" I bit my lip right after I finished, almost ashamed of what I'd blurted out. He'd never given me any reason to doubt him, and yet...
He smiled an easy smile over the lip of the mug. "What if I told you I don't want to?"
"Why don't you want to, then?"
He shook his head. "Why does anyone want to do anything, Rebecca?"
His voice had a note of finality to it that I recognized -- it meant, you won't get any other answers from me -- and so I let it drop.
Amy kept pestering me about Dad, about how sad it was that he'd left us.
I learned to ignore her, and when she didn't join us at the county high school, the summer after graduation, well -- I wasn't heartbroken, the way her little knot of friends claimed to be.
Some of them tried to bully me, the first day of freshman year, and I looked them in the eye.
"Don't," I said, and they let it drop.
At fifteen I got my learner's permit, and Mom taught me how to drive the Jeep, letting me practice on the dirt roads that led to our house, until I got the hang of driving stick and was good enough for the county examiners to pass me. When I got my license (the little printed piece of paper that showed I was allowed to drive with a practiced driver aged 21 or older in the car), I didn't wait until we were out of the driveway before yelling for Dad.
He laughed. "Was there any doubt? Your mom is a good teacher."
"Yeah, but -- I passed!"
"I'm proud of you, Rebecca." He smiled, and I beamed back at him.
"Mom says I can drive all of us to town for ice cream. Come on."
He hesitated, just for a moment. "Well."
"Come on, Charlie," said Mom, smiling. "Just this once?"
Dad sighed. "Let me find my boots."
I grinned, all the way down the mountain. I took the curves as slow as I could, showing Dad that I was a careful driver, that it was fine, that there was nothing to worry about.
He smiled back at me and made small talk about the last time he'd been in town -- sometime the year before, for some mysterious adult reason that Mom hadn't explained and I hadn't bothered to ask for details about -- but I couldn't help but notice, as I slowed to a stop and signaled to turn onto the highway, that his knuckles where they rested on the dash, were white.
I made a point of driving exactly the speed limit, letting other cars pass me, showing that I was a good driver, that I was safe. He didn't let up his grip on the dash until we were at the ice cream store, and even then, he held his cone too tightly.
I thought, there's something going on that I don't understand, and the comments from Amy echoed in my mind, but I did my best not to show it.
If Dad ate his ice cream too fast, Mom and I didn't comment on it. I ate mine quickly, too, and Mom finished hers in the backseat of the Jeep.
"After all," she said, licking her spoon. "It's not like a little bit of strawberry ice cream is going to do more damage than the mud has."
Junior year, Mom and I began talking about what awaited me in the world outside our little house in the woods.
"Do you want to go to college?" she asked.
"I've been thinking about it," I admitted.
Mom smiled. "Your dad and I have money set aside, if you want to go. It's not much, but with your grades..."
I'd managed to surprise everyone by doing well in high school. I was the top of the class, not that it meant much when there were only a hundred or so of us.
"The school counselor keeps trying to tell me that there's a scholarship -- something from the lumber mill -- if I want to study forestry." I made a face. "I don't know what else there is."
"Think about it," Mom said. "And...talk to your dad."
"Did he go to school?"
Mom winced. "He went away for college, but he came back here. He inherited the house and land from your granddad, and took over his work when he died."
"Well, yeah." That much I knew -- that was family history. I still wasn't a hundred percent certain what it was that Dad did.
I asked him once, as a little kid, and he’d sat me down and told me something about stewardship over the land, how he watched over the forest and made sure all was well.
"Like taking care of the trees?" I asked, picturing some of the forestry people who had come to give talks at school.
"Among other things," said Dad.
I didn’t press after that. I wasn’t interested in forestry. I wanted to escape our tiny town. Aside from trips on the ferry to the big-box stores in the nearest city, I’d never been anywhere. I’d read about it in books or on the internet, and listened to different kids in school talk about trips that they took, but I’d never been out of our home state, let alone anywhere else.
I had a vague idea of what people did for work, out in the world beyond our town, but within it, I assumed everyone worked for the forest service or the saw mill. I didn’t want to work for either -- I liked volunteering at the ranger station, but Mom made it clear how difficult it was to get a job with the Forest Service -- and I didn’t want to work for the mill. That ruled out most local work.
“Talk to your dad,” Mom repeated. “And...if he tries to guilt you into staying, don’t.”
“Guilt me into staying?” I asked blankly. “Why would he?”
Mom sighed. “It’s...complicated.”
I didn’t talk to Dad right away. Something about Mom’s words had rattled me. I didn’t know what he did, what his job was, or why he was so hesitant to leave the woods.
I might not have talked to him at all, if he hadn’t pulled me aside.
It was late spring, my birthday. I'd gotten my college acceptance and picked a major, started to think vaguely about what it was I wanted to do.
I was turning 18. Mom made a lot of comments about how I was a legal adult, jokes about how she didn’t have to remember to sign my school forms anymore -- not that there ever were many. Dad fixed huckleberry pancakes, then stopped me as I was about to hop in the truck and drive to school.
“Rebecca,” he said, some note in his voice I couldn’t place. “Can you come straight home today, after school ends? There’s something I want to show you.”
I blinked. ‘Um, sure -- I was going to go to the diner with Andy and them, but…”
Dad nodded. “After that, then. It can wait a bit.”
I went out with friends, but too nervous to enjoy myself fully, I cut it short, citing a family celebration -- “you know, Mom wants to make something special”. This was plausible, and no one asked any questions. I didn’t talk about my parents much, and that was fine with all of us.
“Have fun,” said Daniel, and I just nodded.
I thought Dad would be waiting for me out front when I got home. I was surprised when he wasn't.
I parked the truck, then walked inside and threw my keys on the kitchen table. "Dad?"
"Out back!" he yelled. "There's a Coke in the fridge, if you want one. Your mom's not home yet."
I grabbed the can and walked out to the backyard. Dad was sitting in one of the plastic chairs that adorned what he and Mom called "the lawn": a patch that was more mud than grass most of the year, but which didn't have the ferns that grew everywhere else.
"Have a seat," he said.
I sat down heavily, can still gripped in my hand.
"So…" Dad started. He paused, then sighed. "You've never really asked what it is I do. Suppose I've never asked you what it is you want to do, either."
I started to say something, but he shook his head.
"Can't have been easy," he said. "Growing up out here, in the middle of nowhere. Most people don't know the road is here, let alone the house, yet here we are. Have you ever wondered why it is we stay here?"
I took a swig of Coke. "I figured it was because you inherited the house, so it was what we could afford."
"That's part of it."
"What's the rest, then?"
Dad sat forward in his chair. "Do you remember when you were a little girl and I used to tell you stories about these woods?"
I thought. "That they were full of magic? Yeah. I used to run through them and look for fairies, until Mom told me to knock it off because she thought I'd get lost."
"What else?" Dad pressed.
"That there was a door in the woods, and if people knew how to open it, they could walk through it, but…something about how the door was unpredictable, and if you walked through, you might not come home again."
Dad stood up.
"Come on," he said. "There's something I need to show you."
He stood, and I followed.
Dad led me down one of the little paths that passed by the house, one I'd played on every day as a kid, the one that led to the clearing and the creek. He kept walking though, down the path and deeper into the woods. The light shifted, from bright to dark and cool. The air smelled like hemlocks, moss and water.
He said a few words as we walked, nothing I understood, and the trees and undergrowth almost seemed to bend out of his way, the path clear and wide.
"Come on," he said, and stepped off the path into another clearing.
In the center was a door.
The frame was weathered wood, gray with age, and the hinges were rusted over. The knob was made of china, and it looked as though it had been there a hundred years.
"This is what we do," said Dad, nodding at the door. "All stories have a grain of truth at the center." He walked over, and with the ease of long practice, he swung the door open.
Between the frame, where the door had been, was a rectangle of solid black.
"Um." I stared at the doorway, unsure of what it was I was really seeing. "What…"
"Our family watches over the forest," said Dad. "It's…a calling. We protect the door, and we protect the town from harm."
I didn't want to ask what he meant by that.
"You have a choice," Dad said. "You always do. You don't have to stay here. You can leave for college, just as you planned. If you don't want to come back, you don't have to. But…"
"Have you ever wondered," Dad said, "why it is that this town has managed to escape, when so many other little lumber towns have slipped into poverty? Other mills have shut down, other people have been laid off, but we're still here, still hanging on. Have you ever wondered why that is?"
I thought about Amy Harris, her family and the mill they ran, how out of place they were in our town." Yeah, a little."
"There's give and take," said Dad. "There's always a trade, a price to pay."
"Is this why you never leave?"
He sighed. "If I told you no, would you believe me?"
"That's my girl." He looked to the door, then back to me. "It's a small price to pay. I loved this place, and so when your granddad called me back, I came running."
I swallowed hard. "And if I don't love it here?"
Dad smiled, a slight crooked lift of the corners of his mouth. "Then you leave."
"Can I come back?"
"If you change your mind."
"What will happen if I don't?"
Dad shrugged. "Things will change. I'll close the door and remove the frame. The woods will change. The town might."
"Will you change?"
Dad shrugged and shut the door. "I'll be able to go."
"Dad," I said. "I don't want to stay."
"I know." He straightened. "Let's go home."
We talked, off and on all summer, about what it was that I was turning down, just what I was walking away from.
“Will anyone be in danger?” I asked Dad.
He shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. I think not.”
“Okay,” I said.
I left for college. I came back every holiday, taking the ferry and driving the battered Toyota up the dirt road to where Mom and Dad still lived.
Dad didn’t ask me about the gate, and I didn’t ask him about the town.
After I graduated and got a real job, he asked, for the last time, what it was that I wanted to do.
“Is there any benefit to accepting? Will I get to use magic, if I do, or…?”
He shook his head. “Only what you need to maintain the gate.”
“Then let it go, Dad. You did what you could.”
My parents went to Hawaii that next Christmas. Dad drove the Jeep down the mountain, to the ferry and then the airport. They were gone for three weeks. I volunteered to watch the house, but he insisted that I spend the holiday with my then-boyfriend, the way I’d planned. “No need to change things on account of us.”
When they came back, I asked about their vacation. I didn’t ask about the town.
I visited that summer, and saw the gradual signs that the magic was beginning to fade. The mill was closing, and most of the jobs were going away. At the same time, more tourists were coming, and there was a boom in the number of visitors. Hospitality soared, and if the woods were no longer full of the sound of trucks and saws, well -- wasn’t that the way it was going in every little lumber town?
Mom and Dad moved to town two years ago. Things are still going well for them -- Mom got some kind of promotion, and now oversees some of the forest service work in the national forest that borders the town.
Dad didn’t get a job. He writes now, short stories about what it was like to grow up in the woods. Some of his stories have found homes in magazines that are aimed at men like him.
He has friends now, in the city. Sometimes he takes the ferry out to meet them, and sometimes they come to him.
I want to ask, do you miss it?, but somehow, I feel I already know the answer.
I don’t regret the choice I made. I don’t think Dad does, either.